Tips For Combatting Imposter Syndrome

As a medical student, one of the biggest challenges you are faced with is self doubt. There is such an absurd amount of information you need to know, and only so much time to absorb it. Along the road to your MD, there will be many challenges you will be faced with. Due to the highly demanding nature of medical school, it can be easy to feel as though you are not smart enough to achieve success in medicine. However, you know deep down that you are capable, after all look how far you’ve come!  So why do so many medical students feel such a lack of confidence in their abilities? This is not just a simple issue of self doubt or a fear of failure, this is due to an actual phenomenon called Imposter Syndrome. Here we will discuss what imposter syndrome is, how to know the signs, and tips for combatting imposter syndrome as a medical student!



What is Imposter Syndrome?


Imposter syndrome is defined as a phenomenon of self doubt in one’s abilities and feeling like a fraud. This most commonly affects highly educated individuals who fail to recognize or accept their accomplishments and achievements. Imposter syndrome is not considered a psychological disorder, but rather an observed and studied occurrence among people. This disproportionately affects medical students and other higher order education careers. Imposter syndrome is recognized by many clinical psychologists and even discussed by the American Psychological Association.

A great way to qualify the experience is by relating imposter syndrome to the term “the more you know, the less you think you know”. Many scientific studies have shown that as an individual progresses through to higher levels of education, their self reported scores in their level of knowledge actually decreases. Some studies have suggested that this phenomenon occurs when education becomes more specified. When an individual engages in an area of more specified focus, they realize they don’t fully understand everything about that given subject.


For example:

Learning about biology in high-school was likely much easier for you to do due to it being simplified to that current level of education. Once you get into university biology gets further broken down into several more specific categories such as ecology, genetics, microbiology etc. Next once in medical school microbiology then gets further broken down into immunology, parasitology, bacteriology etc. Each one of these levels of education delves deeper into a world of new information that often makes the individual feel as if they actually know very little about this subject now, when in the past they may have considered themselves well versed in this area.



The 5 Types of Imposter Syndrome


In general, there are 5 main categories that have been defined by Valerie Young, the leading expert on Imposter Syndrome and founder of Imposter Syndrome Institute. If you’d like to learn more about each type, or determine if this may be happening to you, visit her page to learn more.


  1. The Perfectionist
  2. The Expert
  3. The Soloist
  4. The Natural Genius
  5. The Super Student


Why is this so common for Medical students?


According to studies, up to 82% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. Within the general population, women and people of colour are especially likely to experience recurring episodes of imposter syndrome. In addition to this, medical students also experience imposter syndrome at a disproportionately higher rate. The high level of competition within the medical field is likely contributing to this higher rate, and the high level of responsibility associated with being a physician.

The saying “it’s not brain surgery” comes to mind when considering imposter syndrome in physicians.  Because for some of you that do become brain surgeons, it literally IS brain surgery. The content you learn in medical school is vitally important for treating your patients. Therefore, your ability to absorb and utilize this content can have life or death consequences. The reality of life or death scenarios can be enough pressure to make anyone fear they are not fit for the job.





There are many theories regarding what triggers an experience of imposter syndrome. The leading theory states that it is largely influenced by Type A “perfectionist” personalities. Imposter syndrome can also be influenced by your family values, upbringing, and also family pressure. For medical students, obtaining grades that are lower relative to their past scores can trigger imposter syndrome. Another trigger can also be “negative self-talk”. Medical students commonly utilize self-deprecating humour to attempt to cope with the high stress and expectations of medicine. It’s important to balance that humour with positive self talk to avoid internalizing negative thoughts about your capabilities.



Red Flags 


Now that we’ve discussed some of the basics of imposter syndrome lets outline the signs. It’s important to know what some of the most common signs are to determine if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome.


  1. You’re a Perfectionist
  2. You’re unable accept praise for your accomplishments
  3. You have an irrational fear of failure
  4. You’re constantly comparing yourself to others
  5. You believe you are a fraud
  6. You’re afraid to ask for help


How does it affect you? 


Imposter syndrome can have many effects on your life, whether it be your education, career, and even your personal life. As a result of failing to acknowledge your accomplishments, you could experience a downward spiral of worsened self doubt. This could affect your willingness to participate or engage in several different opportunities in your life. The sense of being a fraud has led medical students to perform poorly on examinations due to severe self doubt. Others have even quit medical school to pursue a career they think is more suitable to their abilities. Imposter syndrome can also affect your willingness to take on a leadership role at work.



How to Combat it 


If you think you might be struggling with Imposter syndrome, there’s a few things you can try to combat this. A few recommendations include:


  1. Speak openly about it with someone you trust: Talking about your feelings out loud can help to show you that you are not alone, and speaking to someone you trust can help to show you your true abilities from their perspective.
  2. Focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses: Write down a few attributes about yourself that you are proud of and focus on these strengths every time you feel your confidence waiver.
  3. Write down your accomplishments to remind yourself how far you’ve come: Each time you accomplish something, even if its small, write it down to visually see how much you have done!
  4. Separate your fears from reality: It’s okay to acknowledge your fears as long as you can identify them as fears that are NOT a true reflection of your abilities.
  5. Fake it until you make it: Choose to actively speak and act with confidence, and overtime you will start to see this as the truth.

Last but not least, believe in yourself! I know how trying medical school can be on your self confidence and mental well-being. Remind yourself that you are NOT alone, and it’s okay to acknowledge you are struggling and seek assistance with it. If you’d like to receive more support check out our Community page to stay up to date and connect with other medical students! We’re proud of you!

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